What Do You Mean By 'Specialty' Wheelchair?

When asked to discuss specialty wheelchairs, several major manufactures replied in much the same way, "What do you mean by 'specialty' wheelchair?" The fact is that the customization of wheelchairs to meet the individual needs of clients is commonplace among today's wheelchair manufacturers, and that translates into a myriad of wheelchairs that could be classified as specialty by that merit alone.

If you were to ask someone outside the HME industry to describe a standard wheelchair, more times than not, you will hear about the standard, foldable wheelchair found in most hospitals. Comparing today's wheelchairs to that classic definition leaves additional gray area, placing even the standard power chair into the specialty category.

Another way to define "specialty" is as secondary — that means, a chair a client would not rely on for everyday use. Specifications are customized to the client, the chair functions for a specific task and it is not manufactured in large volume.

The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) concludes that specialty wheelchairs are chairs "designed for the individual who pursues leisure activities that are not possible with a standard wheelchair."

Julianna Arva, M.S., ATP, a rehabilitation engineer at Permobil Inc., said categorizing specialty wheelchairs is a difficult task, especially since the industry often custom assembles wheelchairs for individuals for items such as foot controls, seat functions and individual measurements.

"Our custom shop also gets involved with most chairs, but they build some very unique items that may also be considered specialty," said Arva. "Multiple seat function wheelchairs — tilt, recline, seat elevator, elevating legrests — may be considered specialty by some manufacturers but are quite standard for Permobil."

Ben Kingrey, the group product manager of powered mobility at Invacare Corp., said that when he thinks of specialty wheelchairs, he thinks of customization.

"Thinking in terms of rehab and all the things that go into a rehab product, you can't really do everything you need to do for a specific user in a standardized product," he said.

Paul Banz, the marketing segment manager of power mobility at Sunrise Medical, said that defining specialty wheelchairs is "kind of a loaded question … When we define a specialty wheelchair we are really defining anything other than a standard, rear-wheel manual wheelchair. And that can include anything from a piece of sports equipment; it could mean any level of specialty power wheelchair; or it could mean any special lightweight, ultra lightweight or high-strength lightweight wheelchair."

Arva said a chair used for a medical need such as significant scoliosis or a unilateral pressure sore, which may warrant a rotational tilt, is considered a specialty wheelchair.

All can agree that many of today's wheelchairs are indeed "special," but what specifications constitute a "specialty" wheelchair? Home Health Products looked at the specialty chair as something truly unique in an already highly customized market and uncovered the following categories.

The Sports Chair

Sports chairs are perhaps the one category of wheelchairs that most manufactures can agree is specialty. With that said, sports chairs, though designed with a few unifying features, manifest often difficult-to-categorize specifications because the chairs are quite user-specific. To gain a competitive edge, athletes customize the chair to a specific sport and their own unique needs.

"Some of the higher level athletes will want a chair very customized to their body," said Mark Sullivan, vice president and category manager of the Rehab Group at Invacare Corp. "Just like able-bodied athletes, they're looking for that maximum edge in their equipment."

Tennis chairs, basketball chairs, quad rugby chairs, hand cycles and racing chairs are among the common types of sports wheelchairs. These chairs are manufactured to be lightweight and agile with rigid frames, retractable footrests and anti-tip devices. Basketball and rugby chairs are built for full contact and incorporate welded pieces called wings that "help protect the wheels from getting hooked," said Banz, of Sunrise Medical. Sullivan described wings as "pieces of metal tubing … used to protect the seat and to protect the frame of the chair." Tennis chairs, typically available in two- or three-wheeled varieties, usually weigh less than 25 lbs. and make use of an anti-tip device that looks like a smaller wheel extending from the rear of the chair.

The anti-tip device is "used to stabilize the chair, and those are a little different than what you would see on a normal chair," said Banz. "When you're playing basketball, even more than tennis, certainly as the participants are reaching up for rebound and trying to take shots or if there's chair-on-chair contact, it's really important to have that stabilizer bar in the back to help keep them, to help keep the chair upright."

Two main features of sports chairs that set these wheelchairs apart from standard chairs are the lightweight frame and wheels.

Titanium frames are very lightweight, but are more expensive, said Sullivan. Other materials used include aluminum and chromaly, which are both very durable.

Wheels "provide increased levels of camber … that make the chairs more stable and more maneuverable," said Banz. Sullivan agreed that cambered wheels provide stability and also speed. Banz explained that Sunrise uses different wheel hubs specific to a sport, such as tennis and basketball.

In addition, Sullivan said sports chairs might have more aggressive seating and back angles than standard wheelchairs to help keep the user in the chair.

Handles might extend out from the end of seat rails, "so when people reach to one side to swing a tennis racket, they can hang on with the other hand," said Sullivan. "It kind of depends on which sport and which position you play" as to what modifications are made to the chair, he concluded.

Both Sunrise and Invacare have customization shops — Built For Me and Top End, respectively — that fit the chair to the user. </

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of HME Business.

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